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As I told the House last March, the Government recognised that further legislation was needed to achieve the Assembly's aspiration to establish a Children's Commissioner for Wales with a wide-ranging scope. I made clear the Government's commitment to consider the Assembly's proposals urgently and sympathetically. The Bill represents the Government's response to the Assembly's vision of a Children's Commissioner. It is a vision of a champion of children in Wales who will promote their rights, raise the profile of children's issues and take an overview of the impact of policies and procedures across the services that affect them.
The Bill will introduce a power for the commissioner to review the effect on children in Wales of the exercise, or the proposed exercise, of any function by the Assembly and the other public bodies that it sponsors, such as local authorities and health authorities.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I absolutely welcome the Bill and dismiss the nonsense that we have heard from the Opposition, but is not there a possible flaw in the Bill, given that it relates only to services provided by the Welsh Assembly? Is not there a clear problem in that the commissioner, as envisaged in the Bill, will have no role in relation to extremely vulnerable young people, such as those who are dealt with under youth justice legislation?
The powers include the making or the proposed making of subordinate legislation by the Assembly, which has shown its commitment to the commissioner by opening up its own activities to his scrutiny. The other public bodies involved will be not only those obviously connected with children, but a very wide range of organisations whose actions may impact on them, such as the Welsh Development Agency, Sports Council for Wales and National Museums and Galleries of Wales.
The Bill will extend the commissioner's powers under the Care Standards Act 2000 to examine the cases of particular children and to assist in particular cases. The precise application of that power will depend on regulations to be made by the Assembly, but they could apply to the wide range of bodies to which I have referred, including the Assembly itself.
The commissioner's power to consider complaints, whistleblowing and advocacy arrangements will also be extended under the Bill. That power will be applied to a far wider range of bodies in Wales that provide direct services to children, including local authorities, the NHS, GPs, schools and other education establishments and training organisations. The Assembly will again be one of the bodies subject to that function because, although it does not generally provide services directly to children, it delegates to, or contracts with, other bodies to do so.
The Bill makes provision for the commissioner to require prescribed bodies to provide information to him if they are involved in the investigation of individual cases, or if their arrangements for complaints, whistleblowing and advocacy are being monitored. The bodies involved are potentially all those mentioned in the Bill. Failure to comply would lead to legal sanctions. That is evidence of the Assembly's commitment to creating a commissioner with real teeth, who will have to be taken into account.
The essence of the Bill is therefore its extension of the commissioner's functions to a far greater range of bodies and the new power that it introduces to review the effects on children in Wales of the exercise of functions by a very wide range of bodies.
The vast range of services that impact on children and young people have been devolved and will be within the commissioner's formal responsibility. However, I turn now to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made a few moments ago in respect of non-devolved bodies.
We must remind ourselves that less than a year ago there was no such person as a Children's Commissioner doing anything in Wales or any other part of the United Kingdom, and that it was only a matter of months ago that the commissioner dealt only with children in care. Now the House is being asked to consider extending the commissioner's powers to every aspect of the functions, responsibilities, duties and powers of the Assembly and every institution in Wales that has responsibility to the Assembly. Nearly all those bodies are devolved. We have gone a long way towards providing for those matters to be dealt with by the commissioner. As I said, a vast range of services are devolved. The appointment of the commissioner himself was the Assembly's responsibility, and the post is very much associated with the Assembly.
Just because a matter is not within the commissioner's statutory remit does not mean that he will be debarred from making any comment whatsoever. He will have power to exercise functions that are incidental to his core functions. For example, in the course of his work the commissioner may receive representations from or on behalf of children about non-devolved matters that he may wish to bring to the attention of relevant Government Departments, and no one, but no one, will stop him indicating his views to those Departments in the process. That power would not give the commissioner substantive functions in non-devolved areas, nor would he have any formal power to require information to be provided in relation to such matters. However, it seems highly likely that Government Departments would react positively, given the profile of the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales.
The commissioner may also formally bring to the Assembly's attention complaints and information that he receives about non-devolved matters; for example, through his annual report to the Assembly on his activities. The framework for that can be established through Assembly regulations. As a result, the Assembly itself may wish to consider and make representations on such matters to the Government of the United Kingdom.
fails to take account of the responsibility of UK public bodies and agencies which are not subject to oversight by the National Assembly for Wales.
Mr. Murphy: It is a pity that the Opposition did not deal with the matter by amendments in Committee, rather than tabling the reasoned amendment and totally confusing the people of Wales. The hon. Gentleman has a point about the NSPCC. We have all received letters from that important body. However, its submission says also:
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does the Secretary of State believe that a single one of those organisations in Wales is inclined to recommend that the House support the reasoned amendment tabled by Conservative Members?
Until now, discussion has focused on the role of the commissioner in respect of child protection and, particularly, children looked after by local authorities. Those vital issues concern some of our most vulnerable children. However, it has never been the intention that the commissioner should take the place of existing statutory child protection bodies, or usurp the planned regulatory role of the care standards inspectorate for Wales. It is not intended that the commissioner should seek to take the place of existing complaints systems or routinely investigate cases directly. Indeed, the Assembly's report indicated that it expected the commissioner to undertake formal investigations only if a matter of principle was at stake; it is not envisaged that such investigations will be a routine part of his work. However, the Commissioner will play an important strategic role in ensuring the effectiveness of child protection systems in Wales.